Understanding the Circle of Fifths and Why It's a Powerful Tool

The circle of fifths is the key that unlocks the door to understanding music theory! Take some time each day to study the relationships illustrated the the circle and you'll be playing with the greats in no time.

What is it?

The circle of fifths is the concept that western music is based on; it illustrates the relationship between scales in a way that is, hopefully, easiest to understand. I compare the idea of the circle of fifths as looking at music theory from a distance; it gives you an overall view of what's going on.

Circle of Fifths

Courtesy of Linkware Graphics

How to Read the Circle of Fifths

How the heck to you read this weird looking chart? Easy there turbo, it's not that hard. Some notes:

  • When going clockwise, each key is a fifth above the last; hence 'circle of fifths'.
  • When going counter-clockwise, each key is a fourth above the last. Many jazz chord progressions are based off of this pattern.
  • In this version of the circle, as well as many others, the uppercase letters represent major keys and the lowercase letters represent their relative minor keys.
  • Notice how, starting at C major, one sharp is added to each key as you go clockwise until around C# major; then it switches to flats that decrease by one on each key as you complete the circle. This is why we have sharps & flats. If the sharps continued past C# we would end up with 11 sharps! But when the flats take over they ease the load until the circle restarts.
  • Keys that are directly across from one another are tri-tones of each other. ie: C -> F#

Making Chord Progressions From the Circle of Fifths

Remember this common chord progression?

I - IV - V - I

It's an example of subdominant (IV) and dominant (V) chords leading back to the tonic (I). If we have a tonic note we can use the circle of fifths to give us the subdominant and dominant chord of that key. Just locate the tonic in the circle, let's use C as an example, then locate the keys immediately adjacent on each side. So, if we're using C as the tonic the subdominant would be F, immediately counter-clockwise, and the dominant would be G, immediately clockwise.

Patterns like that are what make the circle of fifths interesting. Not only does it make it easy to figure out chord progressions in any key it also creates a blank canvas for you to come up with your own chord progressions by experimenting with different patterns. Many musical styles are determined by the shape in which the chord progressions make on the circle of fifths. For instance, if you draw an equilateral triangle with each point pointing to a chord you'll get a progression where the chords are all a major third apart.

Circle of Fifths with Triangle Overlay